On opening day of the new SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) hotline, created in partnership with the Arkansas Department of Human Services in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance was reminded how crucial its services are for those it serves.
An older gentleman, recently furloughed from his custodial job, called to sign up for assistance. The application process requires an individual to submit a recent bank statement. While on the phone with an Alliance team member, the caller checked his bank account to find that he had a negative balance of more than $200 — a reality that, without the help of SNAP, could be the difference between eating and going hungry.
Alliance Executive Director Kathy Webb shares that after speaking with the nonprofit’s six state food bank partners about the people it has served in the wake of COVID-19, a large percentage of patrons were people who had never utilized food pantries before. As the national and state unemployment rate continues to grow exponentially, Arkansas food banks, food pantries, school feeding sites and SNAP have never been so important.
Programmed to Fight Hunger
The Alliance is Arkansas’ only statewide hunger relief agency. Within the state, it coordinates with six food banks, school districts, member organizations and nonprofit, corporate, state and local partners, as well as officials at every level of government to approach hunger relief in a comprehensive way. It provides tools and resources, empowerment opportunities, advocacy, education and research to unify the state in an effort to reduce hunger while also providing access to nutritious food.
“We are the lead No Kid Hungry partner in Arkansas,” says Rebekah Hall, Alliance communications manager. “Our No Kid Hungry team works to alleviate child hunger in the state … [by] surrounding children with nutritious food in all areas of their life, where they live, learn and play.
“This happens through school breakfast, our after-school meals program, our summer meals program and through our Cooking Matters program.”
Cooking Matters is a series of six-week courses that teach individuals, teens and families the skills and knowledge needed to make healthy, economic food choices. And because healthy food choices start at the grocery store, the Alliance also conducts this program through a free guided grocery store tour that teaches people with tight food budgets how to read nutrition labels, understand bulk purchasing and make informed decisions.
“Our SNAP team travels across the state to different food pantries, community organizations, senior centers and other places to reach people who may be eligible for benefits,” Hall says. “They help people complete their applications, follow up on their cases and help dispel some of the misinformation and myths surrounding the SNAP program.”
The food sourcing and logistics team locates, purchases and coordinates the shipping of food to the six Feeding America food bank partners who distribute millions of pounds of food and other relief items to Arkansas food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters.
It oversees the Arkansas Beef Project, a program in partnership with the Arkansas Cattleman’s Association and Farmers Feeding the World, which allows farmers to donate a calf or an adult bull/cow. All donated beef is then distributed in one-pound portions to food banks and food pantries across the state.
This team also partners with the Society of St. Andrew volunteers to coordinate the Arkansas Gleaning Project. They glean fields and orchards donated by Alliance growers, an ancient practice of hand-gathering crops left after a farmer’s harvest. The produce is then given to food bank partners, local pantries, soup kitchens and shelters. More than 11.8 million pounds have been gleaned since the program’s inception.
“The food sourcing and gleaning team oversees our hunger gardens, too,” Hall says. “They provide food pantries with fresh produce during the growing season.”
The Alliance is committed to combating hunger in Arkansas by meeting people who are in need where they are — at food banks, feeding sites and pantries, schools, the grocery store and home. “But this fight requires resources, both monetary and commitments of time by its dedicated volunteers,” Hall says. “The better equipped it is for the fight against hunger, the more needy Arkansans it can help.”
Meeting People Where They Are During a Pandemic
According to Hall, COVID-19 has had a significant, even debilitating, impact on Arkansans. Here are some ways the Alliance has pivoted in order to meet the immediate needs during this era of closings and social distancing.
No Kid Hungry
- Coordinating distribution of emergency meals for children affected by school closures
- Maintaining and expanding meal programs through federal guidelines, waivers and grants
- Preparing for how to feed students during summer months
- Utilizing school bus drop-offs, drive-thru meal pickups and restaurant food trucks for food distribution
- Planting hunger gardens to prepare for an increased need for fresh produce in summer and fall
- Working in food banks to pack boxes and distribute food
- With the help of the Walmart Foundation, distributing up to $3,000 each in sub-grants to pantries and feeding programs
- Closely monitoring state and federal regulations
- Working to ensure Arkansas’ congressional delegation is aware of the impact proposed emergency legislation may have on the community it serves
90% of Arkansas public schools continue to serve meals to their students, compared to 30% of districts nationwide.
– Data from the Arkansas Department of Education
Ways You Can Help During COVID-19
From providing hot bags and transportation for rural school districts to getting fresh produce to food banks and expanding the SNAP call center, donations made to the Alliance meet the needs of Arkansans.
The federal WIC program (Women Infants and Children) specifies brands and sizes that are eligible for participants. If you see a WIC sticker in the store (in the dairy section, for example) and stock is running low, choose another item if possible.